The following is my response to Joseph Carman's Dance Magazine article, "Why Do They Say What They Say?" (see here)
Dancers tend to overlook the fact that a critic’s first commitment is to the readers. – Joseph CarmanWell, actually, who are the readers? By and large, when it comes to dance criticism, in New York City at least, the readers are dancers. Everybody else is reading criticism about pretty much anything other than dance. Doubt me? Just ask around.
“The critic has the obligation to report on the imaginativeness of this art and the measure of truth and beauty that is there,” says Joan Acocella, who writes for The New Yorker. “That goal, which I think is the overriding goal, can conflict with the virtue of kindness.”Dance artists aren’t asking for kindness–to be handled with kid gloves and patted on the head by someone whose real job is the official designation of what’s true and beautiful. It’s condescending to treat dancers as if they are delicate children cringing from the threat of abuse. Dance artists are looking for fairness, not kindness.
“I’m not emotionally involved with your career.” -- Allan UlrichAgain, I don’t think dance artists are asking for emotional involvement with their careers. They have family, friends, lovers and perhaps students and fans for that degree of engagement. There’s alienation and unwarranted hostility in this statement.
Alastair Macaulay, the chief dance critic for The New York Times, says that in his fledgling years as a dance critic in London, he was what he terms “an angry young critic.” Currently, he feels that he would lose more sleep over reviews that overpraise than those that go negative. He also cautions dancers about obsessing over criticism. “Generally I follow the rule that performers are ill-advised to read about themselves,” says Macaulay....”“They read reviews at their own peril.”Sleep well. But while you’re awake and able to think about it, consider this: Dancers, just like all adult professionals, have every right to read what’s written about them, if they so choose. It’s not so much that their paper-thin egos are chafing but that they know that nasty reviews–and especially ones published in the New York Times, for god's sake–have potential influence over arts presenters and funders, as well as potential audiences. Hell, I’d monitor every word that was written about me in your paper if I thought it might lose me opportunities and funding, especially in today’s climate. Corporations keep track of what's written and said about them in the media. Why should dance professionals be any less concerned?
But Macaulay claims that he doesn’t place body slamming high on his list of critical talking points. “I learned from Lynn Seymour,” he says, “that a great dancer can transcend what is not considered the ideal body type.”How generous.
One point on which dance writers disagree is the boundary between the critic and the performers. “Choreographers and dancers don’t understand that critics are not part of the dance community,” says Ulrich.Oh, no? Increasingly, critics–or, at least, people interested in writing about dance–are indeed part of the dance community. Who do you think gives a damn enough to commit to this work with its still-inadequate opportunities, compensation and recognition? Who do you think applies whenever courses in dance writing are offered?
Dancers themselves are showing interest in documenting their art and addressing its issues in relevant, meaningful and innovative ways. Engagement and advocacy do not preclude intelligent discernment and, frankly, it is disrespectful to imply that they do.
If the role of Dance Critic, as defined by most of the mainstream writers interviewed for Carman's article, requires a kind of elevation and walling off of the writer from the written about, I no longer recognize it as anything that defines me or has meaning for me.